On Sunday Benjamin Netanyahu became the first sitting prime minister in Israel’s history to stand trial, as he appeared in court on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
The trial follows a ruling in May, in which the Supreme Court held that Netanyahu can serve as prime minister while under indictment and that the unity deal with Gantz did not violate the law.
The legal hearing follows years of investigations and delays – in February 2018, the Israeli police first announced that there was sufficient evidence to lodge three cases against the premier, labelled “1000” “2000” and “4000”.
Case 1000 involves charges of fraud and breach of trust, as Netanyahu allegedly received expensive gifts from wealthy friends and in return took actions in their favour. The case is based on accusations by the police that he and his wife received gifts such as cigars and champagne amounting to over a million shekels or £270,000 from Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan, and his Australian billionaire business partner James Packer. Netanyahu claims that they were gifts from personal friends and that they received no favours in return.
Case 2000 also involves charges of fraud and breach of trust, based on allegations Netanyahu negotiated a deal with Arnon Mozes, the owner of Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, for better coverage in return for promises to limit the circulation of rival newspaper Israel Hayom (a free daily paper established by Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson meant to support Netanyahu) Netanyahu was apparently caught on tape speaking about the idea with Yedioth Ahronoth’s owner, a recording which forms a part of the prosecution’s case.
Case 4000 involves charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, accusing Netanyahu of granting regulatory favours to media mogul Shaul Elovitch – head of leading telecommunications company, Bezeq! – in return for more positive coverage on Walla, a news website Elovitch also owned. Netanyahu’s lawyers argue more favourable coverage does not constitute a bribe.
A year later Israel’s attorney general Avichai Mandelblit recommended that – pending a pre-trial hearing – the prime minister be indicted for fraud and breach of trust across all three cases, with an additional count of bribery in Case 4000.
During the first preliminary hearing his lawyers asked the three-judge panel to delay the proceedings by months, pushing testimony off until spring 2021. Judge Friedman-Feldman, who heads the three judge panel that will decide the case, turned down Netanyahu’s attorney’s request for a lengthy delay, scheduling the next session for July 19.
The trial has deepened polarization of Israeli society, with simultaneous demonstrations held to support and denounce the Israeli prime minister respectively.
From the outset Netanyahu has denied all the charges and labelled the process a “political witch hunt” spearheaded by his leftist opponents. Nahum Barnea, an influential columnist for Yediot Ahronot, observed that Mr. Netanyahu’s goal was “to delegitimize the prosecution and the judges before the trial has even begun.”
As he entered the courthouse to become the country’s first sitting prime minister to go on trial, Netanyahu maintained this line of attack, criticising the nation’s justice system and accusing police, prosecutors, judges and the media of a deep state-type conspiracy aimed to oust him against the will of the people.
Several of Netanyahu’s Likud Cabinet ministers, including the newly appointed internal security minister who oversees the police, came to the court in a show of support – possibly, also, as a challenge and an act of defiance.
The chief prosecutor Liat Ben-Ari, has been the target of a virulent campaign of threats and incitement, and was accompanied by several bodyguards after receiving death threats. On the eve of the trial, Netanahu’s allies in the Likud party stepped up their attacks, denouncing the attorney general as a criminal and saying that anything short of an acquittal would devastate the public’s faith in the justice system.
Under Israeli law, Netanyahu could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted of bribery and a maximum three-year term for fraud and breach of trust, if found guilty. However, the trial will take a long time to reach a verdict, and even if he is convicted, he will not be forced to automatically resign as prime minister – or alternate prime minister – until all the appeals and legal processes are exhausted.
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